Grace Ellensiek’s connection with hand-bell ringing dates back to Sunday mornings at a Wisconsin church, where she played with other performers.
A self-described novice, Ellensiek said she initially gave up on her 20-year hobby upon moving to Sun City. Ellensiek didn’t know if Sun City offered any hand-bell ringing classes or if churches performed with the elaborate set of bells during concerts.
She figured she would give up on the hobby as her skill level was lacking to begin with.
But her husband, a retired minister, discovered after speaking with the music director at the United Church of Christ, where the Ellensieks are parishioners, that hand-bell ringing classes were offered and that church leaders were looking for interested performers.
“I remember walking into a class one morning and hearing the instructor say, ‘Grace, your bells are over there,’ and I’ve been playing ever since,” Ellensiek said.
Walk into any Handbell Ringers of Sun City practice at Fairway Recreation Center and the public will discover how much interest there is in the art of hand-bell ringing.
That also was the case Saturday morning at the American Lutheran Church in Sun City, where the Handbell Ringers of Sun City, a Recreation Centers of Sun City chartered club, played host to a handbell workshop for about 60 interested Northwest Valley residents.
While the majority of participants were from Sun City, others were teenagers in high school or in their 30s and 40s from Peoria and Glendale. And it’s no cheap undertaking: It’s estimated that a set of handbells, along with pads and mallets, can cost upward of $60,000 to $75,000.
The workshop not only taught participants like Ellensiek how to perform more songs, but also the proper techniques of how to hold, ring and “damp” the instrument as there are a number of different styles in ringing English handbells.
In essence, the six-hour workshop was an opportunity for performers to step outside their comfort zones and learn more about the instrument and themselves in the process.
“Some people have been playing for years and years, but today they’re learning new techniques and ways to not hurt themselves,” said Libbie Randels, an area representative of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers Area 11. “I’m happy to see young people here today.”
Ellensiek, who performs with the Handbell Ringers of Sun City, a chartered club of 25 years, said Saturday’s workshop was the first in many years and a longtime coming for those wanting to learn more about playing.
Randels, who led one of the breakout sessions, said the first step in hand-bell ringing is to make sure that, when picking up the bell, the little handbell sign on the handle is facing the performer.
Another proper holding technique includes having the performer put their hand around the handle and not through the handles’ loop. To ring the bell, performers must stretch their arm forward, with slight force, making a single circular motion with their arm.
In order to damp the bell, or make it stop ringing, the performers’ arm must be still forming a circular movement and then brought backward against their chest.
For Ellensiek, the opportunity to perform with other music-minded individuals is something she enjoys about hand-bell ringing.
“It’s a fun, healthy thing to do,” she said, noting the activity is both physically and mentally demanding. “It’s my musical outlet.”
The Handbell Ringers of Sun City, which perform annual spring and Christmas concerts, meet 9 to 11:30 a.m. Fridays at the Fairway Recreation Center.
Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or zcolick@yourwestvalley.